December 2012 archive

A would-be feminist rant

Women over
populate my life.  Four daughters,
three sisters, and a professional life both in the world of psychology and of
writing that these days is dominated by the presence of women.  It is the same wherever I go.  
The Melbourne Writers’ Festival.  Check out the audience: all those
heads, the dyed or otherwise greying hair of women, mostly older women, though
there are some young ones in between. 
Maybe a quarter of them at most are men.  I do not know the statistics.  The ratio is much the same in psychotherapy circles, one man
to every four women. 
I prefer a more balanced mix of gender, including the in between,
the hybrids, the transgendered.  I
tell myself I would prefer there were more men present, at the same time I am sensitive
to the degree to which men tend to dominate conversations.  
Research suggests that from the
beginning in early childhood at kindergarten and primary school, teachers spend
more time addressing the boys. I risk a generalisation here but it seems to me from earliest days
girls learn to communicate with words, whereas boys are more inclined towards
action, including action words.
In September this year, the feminist activist, comedian and all
round ‘nuisance’ woman, Catherine Deveny was on the panel of Q and A with the likes of Peter Jensen, the Anglican archbishop of Sydney.  Catherine Deveny gets bad press as a
loud mouth.  She invites it to some
extent because of some of the things she says, like her comment about Bindi Erwin and the hope that she ‘get laid’.  
A non-academic Germaine Greer of sorts, Deveny by and large is on the
side of the underdog, on the side of women, but she too enjoys her friendships
with men and what seems like a loving partnership with a man with whom she
cares for two sons, though to her great pride the couple remain unmarried.  I befriended Deveny on Face Book
because I enjoy her style; though I watch other peoples’ faces crumple at the
mention of her name.
I mention Deveny here because of the battle over the number of words
ascribed to her during this session of Q and A.  Several twitterers and bloggers considered her to have
dominated the show.  She cut across
the other panelists, people complained, when in fact she did no such
thing. 
Chrys Stevenson analysed the data and found that as is typically the
case the men used more words, and cut across people more often, while the two
women on the panel spoke less.  Not
to get into a battle between the sexes, I think about these issues here in my rambling
disjointed and broken way of thinking – I am a woman after all – my father’s
daughter, my husband’s wife.  I
recognize the imbalance of power in my world where women are mainstream but men
get the cream.  The cream of jobs,
the cream of books reviewed, the cream of recognition.
Despite the prevalence of patriotism everywhere, including
and for me especially during my childhood, somehow the men often seem to wind
up worse off than the women who are downtrodden, though not in extreme
cases.  Witness the plight of
certain Muslim women, Indian women, women in deeply patriarchal societies where
to speak out as a woman is to risk getting your head cut off, and not just
metaphorically. 
When I first started to write again, many years ago after a destabilising
event that left me demoralized, I could only seek solace in words on the
page.  I realised then the degree
to which writing has come to be dominated by what Ursula Le Guin has called
‘father tongue.’  Father tongue,
the language of the academy, the so-called objective language that seeks
distance; that resents uncertainty and demands closure.  This as distinct from mother tongue,
the language of mothers and babies, mothers and children, the language that Le
Guin argues is closest to poetry. 
It flies on the wind.  It is
repetitive and simple.  It thrives
on doubt. 
Both languages are essential Le Guin argues but there is a danger
when one presupposes superiority over the other, as evidenced in the hostile
response to Deveny’s non-rational comments juxtaposed to the less virulent
responses to the so-called objective and reasoned thoughts of her fellow mostly
male panelists.  We need both
mother tongue and father tongue to develop what Le Guin describes as native tongue
but this is not easy in a world dominated by the patriarchal.
My sensitivity to such things derives from my life in a family top
heavy with men and this time not only in notion, but also in fact.  There were eleven of us in my family,
six males, five females.  My father
at the head.  He ran the show.  He earned the money.  My mother obeyed.  
At least overtly she obeyed.  If ever she defied him it was a hidden
defiance, one she undertook in stealth. 
That was until she caught my father at my sister’s bedside and the look
on his face told her he had over stepped the mark.  My sister was sitting in bed, the blankets pulled up to her
chin, like a little bird, my mother said, while my father leered. 
‘Get out of here,’ my mother said to my father.  ‘If I ever see you with her again I’ll
kill you.’  
Later she thought my
father’s visits to my sister had stopped, but my mother could not bear to see,
and my sister protected her by keeping my father’s further visits a
secret.
I do not want to suggest that men are the bad guys here and women
are the victims.  We are all in
this together.  The other night at
dinner after a day long writing workshop, four women and one man, we talked of
travels overseas, and one woman, the youngest among us, talked of how she had
been groped six times in India in less that six days until she finally saw
red.  She ran after the man who had
grabbed her breast, and yelled at him that he should not behave so while
squeezing a bottle of water over his head.  She yelled at him all the way down the street and
imagined-hoped, she said, that she had managed to shame him in front of friends
and family.  
‘It happens all the time,’ she said. 
Not to me, I thought. 
But then again I have not travelled through India, or Rome, or the
Middle East where others have told me such extreme exploitation of women takes
place.  And I am over fifty, the
age they say when women disappear from view as sexual objects.
Alas, these unwarranted gropings do not just happen overseas.  I went to the most recent Reclaim the Night march in Sydney Road in Brunswick in October this year.  The march followed closely on the death
of Jill Meagher.  This much
publicized event took Melbourne by storm. 
Jill Meagher was young, beautiful and talented.  She worked in the media.  She had a profile in her ordinary
day-to-day life that drew people’s attention to her, but now she is dead and
her alleged killer is in prison awaiting trial.
There was a storm of protest when Jill Meagher disappeared, mostly
fueled by comments on social media and people’s rage which apparently made it
easier for police to track down the alleged killer.  When I heard they had found him, not only did I feel relief,
the man was off the streets at last, my daughters might be safe, especially the
one who lives in Brunswick close by to where Jill Meagher was raped and murdered,
I also felt sorry for the children of this man, boys or girls, what does it
matter?  
How is it to live your life in the knowledge that your father is a
sexual predator and a murderer?  I
know something of what life is like with a father who sexually abuses his
oldest daughter and moves in the direction of his younger daughters.  And it sucks.  It sucks because it makes you twitchy in relation to all
things sexual.  And it makes you
wary of relations with men.  Not
that I haven’t had my share of them. 
And I have been married for 35 years to a man who even as a successful
lawyer and a man of many talents still struggles to find an identity in a
world, his world dominated by women, his mother, his sisters, his wife and four
daughters. 
He calls it girlie talk when we prattle away in whatever is of
interest to us at the time, the price of the new Funkey shoes, the intricate
details of my daughter’s recent birth of her son, the latest gossip about the
girls at my youngest daughter’s school. 
I am used to my husband’s disdain and often times will try to redirect
the conversation to something that might feel more inclusive of him, but my
daughters are less so inclined. 
It is not simply the gender divide.  The generation gap applies too.  My husband who had his formative years during the hippie
loving seventies now and then comes out with schoolboy humour, lightweight
sexual innuendo to my ears but to my daughters, his jokes are appalling.  He once argued with one daughter and in
the heat of the moment referred to her as a tart.  She objected to the word.  She still does. 
She considers it an affront to have a father who calls her a tart.  He used the term not to describe her
appearance but more because he was angry about her behavior, too long on the
telephone or some such thing. 
I argued with my daughter over her sensitivity to the word.  ‘Bitch would have been better,’ she
said to us, ‘but not tart.  Tarts
are prostitutes.’  My husband
learns to hold his tongue. 
Language changes and with it words take on new meanings.  The politically correct extracts its
toll and plays its part in the power imbalance between men and women. 
When I was young I thought my father ruled the house, but there came
a time when my parents were around the age I am now, not long before my father
died, when the tables turned.  My
mother took up voluntary work with the church visiting impoverished families in
the high-rise estates in Fitzroy.  My father by now had retired.  He did not like her going out while he
was stuck at home alone.  He did
not want her to learn to drive for fear she would never stay home.  Instead he drove her in and out of the
city from Cheltenham every day in order that she should be near.
The tables turned and my father, once the strong one became the helpless
dependent one right up until his death. 
And my mother grew stronger once he was gone. 

My hips are still agile

Christmas Eve and I’m well
again.  At last.  Only a few days of ill health but
enough to have me imagine I would never feel okay again, never my normal self.  Last week I copped a virus of some
sort, presumably one I caught from my grandson after he had stayed with us.  I held myself together until the final
day of my work and then collapsed. 
It’s always the way.  I’ve come to expect it: go on holidays
and fall ill, mostly with a minor ailment but I tend to imagine it’ll be worse,
as if I’m waiting for the final diagnosis that signifies my pending death. 
I’ve said this before, I’m
sure.  When I was young I thought
sixty would be a terrific age at which to die.  When I was young, a child at primary school, old age seemed
such a foreign country.
Last night I visited my mother in
her retirement village, the centre of that foreign country.  I arrived at the end of dinner and
walked with her as she shuffled back from the dining room.  There was a bottleneck of people
hunched over their walkers as we entered the corridor that leads back to her room, three old people staggering on the slight incline that leads from one
part of the corridor to the next, my mother at the rear.  I looked down at my mother’s legs visible under
her skirt, at her angular though shapely ankles, on her unsteady feet.  And I shuddered.  
It was hot yesterday, and yet it
had stayed cool in the nursing home as my mother proceeded to tell me while she
manoeuvred her walking frame behind her fellow residents.  Her hips
swayed from side to side as if without the frame she might totter to the
ground. 
My hips are still agile.  I can walk without difficulty, though
yesterday while I was shrugging off the last of the virus, still feeling
queasy, I went with one of my daughters into the city for a dose of last minute
Christmas shopping, and thought otherwise.
            ‘Why
do you need to stand around like that?’ my daughter said to me after she came
out of the change room where she had tried on a new dress, a potential
Christmas present.  ‘Like you’re a
person with special needs?’
I was not aware I had been standing
around in such a way.  I imagine
she expected me to look purposeful but by this time of the year
after more than one such visit to David Jones’s women’s clothes’ department –
four daughters after all, two of whom have particular tastes in clothes – I
found myself looking for a seat while I waited for said daughter to try things
on. 
 I have noticed, in this department store at
least, there are no seats available for the likes of me on which to sit.  There was a sort of cabinet in the Ted
Baker section with a British flag painted on top – Ted Baker must be an English
label, not one my daughters choose – so I sat on the edge of it.  None of the sales staff seemed to
mind.  But my daughter found my sitting there troublesome.  
I did not find my mother’s gait
troubled me yesterday, not at my age now, other than as a reminder of what is
to come.  My daughter on the other
hand is in her mid twenties still in that place where old age is foreign territory and not worth considering in terms of self yet.  
After my mother had reached her arm
chair and flopped down into it, I sat on the flat seat of her walker
nearby.  Proximity makes it easier for her to hear me.  
For the first time I noticed a
bracelet on my mother’s wrist, one I had not seen before.  She told me she had bought it in Holland.  It was silver with delicate incisions
cut into the surface like lace.  I
knew at once I wanted it. 
There is not much that my mother
leaves behind that I desire other than her bracelets, this one and another, a gold
bracelet, an heirloom left to her by a long dead aunt, also from Holland – a
thick gold chained bracelet that is linked to a single guilder.  I would be happy to settle
for one bracelet only, if I could choose, but how could I tell this to my mother? 
So far it has been easy to tell her that I’m okay about most things she leaves behind.  She can choose.  
Though I once mentioned a particular preference for the crucifix on her mantlepiece, not for
religious but for sentimental reasons, as in it revives memories of the time it
sat on the mantelpiece throughout my childhood.  
The crucifix will no doubt go to one of my mother’s more
religious children.  Sentiment is not a good enough reason to inherit a crucifix. 
Bracelets are different. We
daughters might fight over them after our mother has gone.  Not that we would fight.  Not openly at least. 
We never fight, not these days, not as we fought when we were
young.  
To speak of wanting something was
forbidden from my earliest memories, only hinting would do.  But it is no longer in my style to
hint. 
Next time I see my mother I will
ask outright.  It’s not as hard as
asking her other questions about the past whose answers she holds so close to
her chest I fear she will never part with them. 

A bracelet is easy to give away
even if to speak of it again is to signify death.  And then I imagine myself wearing my mother’s bracelet.   I imagine my skin brush against the bracelet that my mother’s skin now brushes against and feel a mixture of pleasure and of revulsion.  Such these days is my attitude towards death.  
And here for good cheer is the
Lemon Myrtle my youngest daughter and I dragged in from our garden for this
year’s Christmas tree.  My daughter decorated
it with her nephew.  Together they
basked in that lovely place where old age and death are almost unthinkable.

1 2 3